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The value of faith in the face of suffering

By Michael Kelly - posted Tuesday, 26 November 2002

Across Australia over the past two weeks thousands of people have attended worship services. Religious leaders have attempted to say something about the tragedy in Bali, something of comfort, something of hope. Candles have been lit, wreathes laid, prayers offered, rituals performed. There have been some moving sermons, tender thoughts, and beautiful gestures. Have all these words and gestures, however, had any real, enduring meaning? Has faith had anything authentic to offer in the face of this horror?

A theologian once wrote "So much religion seems like a bad cosmetic job on the ravaged face of human existence". Cosmetics can have their place, of course – as can soothing rituals. They help us to get by and go on, to hide the horror a bit, to bear what we feel cannot be borne. Eventually, however, the ravages break through, and we face times when the suffering hidden in the heart of living is ripped open. Without our consent or comprehension, life’s random agony, unpredictable brutality and impossible pain tear away our securities and illusions, leaving us bewildered and vulnerable.

It is just at this point, when individual suffering could deepen into real confrontation with the agonising, wondrous mystery of living itself, when personal pain could shock us into a new kind of awareness and compassion, that religion tends to soothe us with slogans and platitudes.


One of Michael Leunig’s prayers says that in the end there are only two forces in life: love and fear. For all its comforting sights and sounds, much "religion" is based on and colludes with our fear –fear of suffering, of the unknown, of our helplessness and loneliness, of death. We sprinkle holy water and whistle hymns in the dark, and talk of hope and resurrection before the corpse is cold or the tears shed. It all helps for a while – but when faced with overwhelming grief, appalling carnage, mindless slaughter, and the incineration of the innocent, much traditional religious talk is exposed as achingly hollow.

What then of love? What does love have to offer in the face of horror?

A friend of mine once put this question to an elderly nun who had spent several decades working with destitute women in the slums of an African city. He was a priest, overwhelmed by his own work for Africans with AIDS, and feeling increasingly desperate. "What does it mean to live the Gospel and talk of faith, hope and love amid the chaos and devastation of Africa?" he asked. She replied: "It means facing the horror and not running away".

For many Australians, the horror and injustice that saturate our world suddenly became real this month. For some it was a profound shock to realise that we are not insulated from the pain and death that accompany life at every point and in every person. We are just ordinary humans – searching, fearful, loving and vulnerable, and we will never grow up, never learn justice and compassion, and never understand spirituality, unless we face the reality of suffering. Instead of replacing false securities with fake religion, instead of setting out, with grim determination, to make sure this atrocity does not alter our "carefree Aussie lifestyle", can we learn to love one another enough, and love life enough, to sit together and face the horror without running away?

This kind of love defies rational explanations and religious formulas, and faces life as it is. Simone Weil wrote, "the mind comes slap up against physical suffering, affliction, like a fly against a pane of glass". For all our reasoning or our piety, our work for justice or our medical progress, our secure borders or our wars against terrorism, life remains full of suffering. In every life, in all life, there comes a time when, like Job in the Bible, all we can do is cry out to God – even against God, suffer life’s agony and face God’s silence. Weil says, "It is when from the innermost depths of our being we need a sound that means something – when we cry out for an answer and it is not granted to us – it is then we touch the silence of God".

Religion must not betray that silence. If it tries to put words where silence belongs it ends up in idolatry or triviality. Let pain be pain, let silence be silence, and let religion do its real job of binding us together, holding us as we suffer, weaning us off cheap comforts, and releasing in our guts the cry of Christ, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" This is the cry of every creature, and of all humanity, as we face the darkness and pain of existence itself.


If there is any faith, any hope, any life after death and despair, it lies within, through and beyond the deepest emptiness humans can bear. Sometimes through ecstasy, mostly through pain, life shatters us and seduces us into this void. Here, religion must fall silent and fall apart, once it has taught us to live without illusions, to love without reasons, to let go of our securities, to trust the emptiness, the mystery, that draws the cosmos out of silence - and life out of death.

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This article was first published in The Age on Saturday, October 26, 2002. Article courtesy of Church Resources, publisher of CathNews and a member of The National Forum.

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About the Author

Michael B Kelly was a religious educator in the Catholic Church for 17 years. He is a spokesperson for the Rainbow Sash movement.

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